Last year at this time, Reilly O’Toole was behind center at Wheaton Warrenville South, leading the Tigers through the Class 7A playoffs and to an eventual second straight state championship.
These days, O’Toole makes his football home at the very locale—University of Illinois’ Memorial Stadium—where he and the Tigers marched to those state titles.
O’Toole finds himself behind sophomore starter Nathan Scheelhaase on the depth chart at Illinois, which has been enjoying one of its better seasons in recent years despite losing successive games to Ohio State and Purdue in Weeks 7 and 8. The Illini had been ranked in college football’s top 25 through the first eight weeks of 2011, but dropped out of the rankings after falling to Purdue on Oct. 22.
Scheelhaase, who’s thrown for 11 touchdowns and over 1,600 yards prior to Illinois’ Big Ten contest at Penn State over the weekend, is firmly entrenched as the Illini’s starter at this juncture. But O’Toole hasn’t been languishing on the bench.
The Illini coaching staff utilizes O’Toole to spell Scheelhaase on occasion—much like it did last year with Eddie McGee, who was then the backup.
“I did it last year all year with Eddie,” Illini offensive coordinator Paul Petrino told the Chicago Tribune in late September. “Sometimes it’s just giving Nathan a break, letting him take a couple of plays off and see it from the sideline and let someone else make the plays.”
O’Toole, chosen Player of the Year by several area newspapers during his senior season at WWS, says he’s comfortable in his current role.
“They said that I could come in and make plays,” said O’Toole after a recent practice. “I know our offense right now really relies on Nate to make plays. Right now my role is to go in there and kind of take some pressure off of Nate, but when I do get playing time, just making the most of it. Right now, just that, and just try to take care of the ball when I get in there and make some plays.”
The passing efficiency that O’Toole displayed with the Tigers—he completed 74 percent of his passes in 2010—has carried over into college. He saw action in five of the Illini’s first eight games, going 17 of 22 for 116 yards and a quarterback rating of 127.5.
O’Toole’s best outing of the year so far took place during the Illini’s Week 3 drubbing of South Dakota State. The 6-4, 220-pound freshman was a perfect 9-for-9 for 50 yards, which included an 8-yard touchdown pass to tight end Evan Wilson in the third quarter.
“They (the Illini coaches) say I’m doing fine—just get my head into the play book and just keep learning it,” said O’Toole, a first-team all-stater at WWS. “I pretty much know it (the play book), but I can always know it better. Basically, just get that down and keep on working.”
O’Toole was the state’s top-rated prep quarterback last season, but even a blue-chip recruit has to learn the ropes at the next level, where the game is much faster. O’Toole said getting used to the speed of major college football is one of the biggest adjustments he’s had to make.
“There are 300-pounders that are chasing me that are faster than me,” he said. “And getting used to the play book. There’s new lingo and it’s a little more complex (than in high school).”
Prior to the season, there was speculation that O’Toole could be red-shirted, but O’Toole showed promise during training camp and became more comfortable with the offense. Illini head coach Ron Zook and his staff decided just days before the season-opener not to red-shirt O’Toole.
Barring an injury to Scheelhaase, O’Toole knows he won’t see much playing time this season. And he’s OK with that.
“I’m just trying to help the team in any way I can,” he said. “Even in practice, just getting everyone ready. If I do get a shot, just make sure I’m ready so I don’t let the team down when I’m in there. I’m just trying to work hard in practice and make every play matter in practice.”
Looking down the road, Scheelhaase has two more years of eligibility, and if things remain the same, O’Toole is his backup for the foreseeable future. Asked if he sees himself challenging Scheelhaase for the starting job at some point, O’Toole replied, “I’m not really thinking about that too much.”
“I’m just focusing on the team right now,” he said. “I’m just concentrating on that and (I’ll) worry about that when the time comes. Right now, I’m doing fine. I love it here and it’s been fun.”
High school football playoffs started throughout the state this past weekend, and O’Toole has been keeping tabs on his alma mater. The Tigers opened defense of their Class 7A title with a 23-16 victory over Providence Catholic on Friday night.
“I’m following them pretty closely,” he said, “and have been talking to Coach (Ron) Muhitch every once in a while and wished him good luck before the game. They’re doing well.”